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William Gibson

William Gibson Essay - Gibson, William

Gibson, William


William Gibson 1948–-

(Full name William Ford Gibson) American-born Canadian novelist, short story writer, and scriptwriter.

Gibson is a leading practitioner of cyberpunk, a futuristic subgenre of science fiction that combines the tough atmosphere and scatological language of hardboiled crime fiction, imagery from the punk counterculture movement, and technical developments of the 1980s. Like the new wave science fiction writers of the 1960s, who introduced such topics as sex and drugs to a traditionally conservative genre, Gibson updates conventional science fiction concerns to reflect contemporary trends. His short fiction has been published in several periodicals and collected in Burning Chrome (1986).

Biographical Information

Gibson was born on March 17, 1948, in Conway, South Carolina. He grew up in a small town in Virginia and developed a strong interest in science fiction from an early age. Gibson was heavily influenced by the noirish, subversive work of such authors as William Burroughs, Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon, and J. G. Ballard. He dropped out of high school and moved to Toronto, Canada, in 1967. A few years later he moved to Vancouver and enrolled in the University of British Columbia. After receiving his B.A. in 1977, he began to write science fiction stories and had some of his early work published in Omni magazine. In 1984 he published his first novel, Neuromancer, which attracted much critical attention. In fact, the book was the first novel to win all three major science fiction awards: the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards. Since that initial success, Gibson has issued numerous novels, a short fiction collection, and has written several scripts for film and television.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Gibson's reputation as a short fiction writer rests on his 1986 collection, Burning Chrome, a volume of his early short stories that also include pieces written in collaboration with fellow cyberpunks Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, and Michael Swanwick. Several of these stories have been widely anthologized in science fiction magazines. Stylistically, Gibson's work is characterized by frenetic pacing; Gibson also utilizes features such as flashbacks, vivid imagery, juxtapositions, and metaphors. Central to Gibson's stories are his grim vision of the future, misfit characters, the role of memory as well as the artist in society, and a reliance on dense layers of technological information and slang. For instance, in the story “Johnny Mnemonic” (1981), the title character hides a stolen microchip in his brain. He is pursued by a Japanese crime syndicate, intent on killing him and recovering the chip, and later saved by Molly Millions, a bionic hit woman with razor blades under her fingernails. The story was made into a movie in 1995. “The Winter Market” focuses on the relationship between Casey, an engineer, and Lise. Dying, Lise has her personality encoded as a computer program and stored on a computer. After her death, the computer calls Casey every morning. He now must address his grief while reconciling the reality of Lise's physical death and her continued existence in the memory of the computer.

Critical Reception

The stories comprising Burning Chrome are generally praised for their craftsmanship and subtle portrayals of characters caught up in fantastic events. Reviewers have commended Gibson's bleak envisage of the future and of the disturbing role of technology in society and on human interaction. Gibson's portrayal of multinational corporations and their growing role in the world is considered by some commentators as insightful, disconcerting social commentary. Yet some critics regard Gibson's work as superficial, immature, sometimes impenetrable, and only geared toward young, technologically savvy males. Despite these charges, Burning Chrome is a well-regarded collection and Gibson's short fiction is perceived as an integral aspect of his oeuvre. Moreover, Gibson is viewed as a vital voice in the science fiction field.

Principal Works

Burning Chrome [with Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, and Michael Swanwick] 1986

Neuromancer (novel) 1984

Count Zero (novel) 1986

Mona Lisa Overdrive (novel) 1988

The Difference Engine [with Bruce Sterling] (novel) 1991

Virtual Light (novel) 1993

*Johnny Mnemonic (screenplay) 1995

Idoru (novel) 1996

All Tomorrow's Parties (novel) 1999

*Based on Gibson's short story of the same title


Miriyam Glazer (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Glazer, Miriyam. “‘What is Within Now Seen Without’: Romanticism, Neuromanticism, and the Death of the Imagination in William Gibson's Fictive World.” Journal of Popular Culture 23, no. 3 (winter 1989): 155–64.

[In the following essay, Glazer traces recent developments in science fiction and places Gibson within the context of the science fiction genre.]

If the chaos of the nineties reflects a radical shift in paradigms of visual literacy, the final shift away from the Lascaux/Gutenberg tradition of a pre-holographic society, what should we expect from this newer technology, with [its] promise of discrete encoding and subsequent reconstruction of the full range of sensory perception?

—William Gibson, “Fragments of a Hologram Rose,” Burning Chrome

Author of the acclaimed, award-winning novel Neuromancer, as well as of Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive and the short stories collected in Burning Chrome, William Gibson has been greeted as a vital new voice on the science fiction scence.1 Gibson has been heralded as a postmodern “New Wave” Romanticist,2 and a leader of the “Cyberpunk” movement—a coterie of writers steeped in the conventions of the science fiction genre, but departing in essential respects from that genre's familiar fascination with “Big Science.” Earlier science fiction reflected a “yawning cultural gap” between the sciences, on the one hand, and literary culture, on the other, writes “cyberpunk” booster Bruce Sterling, for science itself was “safely enshrined—and confined—in an ivory tower.” But in our era, science and technology are no longer remote from the everyday life of the culture; they are palpable presences influencing every aspect of life:

For the cyberpunks … technology is visceral. It is not the bottled genie of remote Big Science boffins; it is pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds.

Technology itself has changed. Not for us the giant steam-snorting wonders of the past: the Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building, the nuclear power plant. Eighties tech sticks to the skin, responds to the touch: the personal computer, the Sony Walkman, the portable telephone, the soft contact lens.3

The “technolatry” of earlier science fiction—what Sterling calls “scientification”—was more than a love affair with Big Science, however. Mutatis mutandis, it was also a modern re-enthronement of the Enlightenment Goddess of Reason, in her aspect of scientific and technological advance, as the monarch of a utopian world order. Beneath the fast-paced, hard-edged surface, in opposing that technolatry Gibson's deepest literary roots are to be found, like those of many modern novelists, within late eighteenth and nineteenth century Romanticism.4 In a seminal story, “The Gernsback Continuum,” Gibson suggests that though the dream of an ideal social order constructed on the principles of abstract reason continues to haunt the mass unconscious of the contemporary psyche as a kind of “semiotic ghost” (BC, 29), that dream belies reality and is in its essence insidiously dangerous. Like Blake's Urizen fantasizing “a joy without pain … a solid without fluctuation,”5 scientification's ideal world was, for Gibson, born of a “dream logic that knew nothing of pollution, the finite bounds of fossil fuels, or foreign wars it was possible to lose” (BC, 32). And like Urizen's totalitarian impulse in forging “One King, one God, one Law” (Urizen, K 224), Gibson considers such a world order perilously evocative of the fascist nightmare unleashed in the 1940s:

… I knew, somehow, that the city behind me was Tucscon—a dream Tucscon thrown up out of the collective yearning of an era. That it was real, entirely real. But the couple in front of me lived in it, and they frightened me.

… they were Heirs to the Dream. They were white, blond, and they probably had blue eyes. They were American … They were smug, happy, and utterly content with themselves and their world. And in the Dream, it was their world.

Behind me, the illuminated city: Searchlights swept the sky for the sheer joy of it. I imagined them thronging the plazas of white marble, orderly and alert, their bright eyes shining with enthusiasm for their floodlit avenues and silver cars …

It had all the sinister fruitiness of Hitler youth propaganda.

(“The Gernsback Continuum,” BC, 32-33)

In rejecting science fiction's twentieth century version of the eighteenth century ideal, Gibson's work ventures anew into the Romantic heartland, where rebels against the dominant order are obsessed with experiences that sweep them up beyond the confines of self and where a desire to confront the unknown becomes an urgent force. In Gibson we witness, on the one hand, the “Abomination of Desolation” to which, as Blake believed, the “Holy Reasoning Power” can lead us (Milton, K 506; Jerusalem, K 629) and, on the other, the struggle to not be contained by that desolation. The Romantics lived in an age shadowed by the Newtonian paradigm and witnessing the onset of modernity: an age of radical psychic and social dislocations, political upheaval and repression, rapid urbanization, the spread of industry and a market economy and, last but not least, the vast expansion of print technology, with its own repression of the full interplay of all human faculties, its outering and isolation of the visual sense, homogenization and linealty.6 Lulled by this “multitude of causes unknown to former times” into a “savage torpor” and shackled by “mind-forg'd manacles,” modern humanity, for the Romantic sensibility, desperately needed to awaken to the silenced inner life and the lost riches of imagination.7 Their art is thus committed to mining the rich lode of what Marshall McLuhan has called the “ever-mounting slag-heap of rejected awareness” that print technology, as an expression of modernity, itself helped to create (McLuhan, 293).

But Gibson's purview is “post-modern.” His fiction posits a global post-Gutenberg and post-Newtonian culture where the old familiar borders of the industrial age have dissolved. Just as his “cyberpunk” fiction bridges the gap between “science” and “literary culture,” so he depicts a radical interfusion of the market and the polis, the Orient and the West, “man” and “machine,” self and world—and all are transmuted in the process. Driven by the energy of an all-consuming market economy, societies from Japan to the North American “Sprawl” are controlled not by nationalistic governments but by rival multi-national corporations. In that global culture, print technology is a mere memory and reading, and exotic art. Now, through “simstim”—Simulated Stimulation—the whole human sensorium can be technologically outered and, through neuroelectronics, even the most subversive of dreams can be accessed, restructured, edited, “balanced,” packaged and sold—“Radio Shack will sell you the box and the trodes and the cables,” (“Winter Market,” BC, 124). Technological “advance” has brought no utopia into being, however; instead, the “mind-forg'd manacles” Blake saw in late eighteenth century London have become tighter, more elaborate, more devastating. The cities themselves have turned into a “neon forest” roofed over by geodisic domes under a “poisoned silver” sky. In our cities, said Wordsworth, “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers”; in Gibson's urban environments the spread of malls and plazas is relentless, with black markets in drugs, body-parts, dangerous software and “surgical boutiques” selling “vatgrown flesh … tattooed with a luminous digital display wired to a subcutaneous chip” (N, 14). Everywhere, at every moment, is the “ravenous ear of an information-hungry global economy” (“Hinterlands,” BC, 62) and the subliminal hum of illegal “biz.”

In the emerging modern world, wrote Blake, “What is within [is] now seen without” (Four Zoas, K 281). True for his own age, it is even more potent as a description of the world of Gibson's fiction. For the “slag-heap of rejected awareness” from which the Romantics culled their visions of a rejuvenated humanity participating fully and joyously in life is turned inside out in Gibson's world and, in the process, becomes one, ironically, of “solid obstruction.” “Rejected awareness” is a spiritual and aesthetic slag-heap from which visionary art critiquing the present order may be mined. The environments Gibson creates are littered with slag-heaps of rejected and obsolete objects. Consciousness itself is surrounded by the “sea of cast-off goods our century floats on,” piles of “nameless junk,” “impacted scrap,” the waste, the garbage, the gomi that a global market economy generates (“Burning Chrome,” BC, 171; N, 48):

The door swung inward and she led him into the smell of dust. They stood in a clearing, dense tangles of junk rising on either side to walls lined with shelves of crumbling paperbacks. The junk looked like something that had grown there, a fungus of twisted metal and plastic. He could pick out individual objects, but then they seemed to blur back into the mass: the guts of a television so old it was studded with the glass stumps of vacuum tubes, a crumbled dish antenna, a brown fiber canister stuffed with corroded lengths of alloy tubing. An enormous pile of old magazines had...

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Darko Suvin (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Suvin, Darko. “On Gibson and Cyberpunk SF.” Foundation, no. 46 (autumn 1989): 40–51.

[In the following essay, Suvin discusses the category of cyberpunk, considering Gibson's short fiction as representative of the subgenre. This is a revamped version by Suvin in 1991 of the above cited essay.]

To the memory of Raymond Williams


More so than for other literary genres, a commentator of current SF has to cope with its very spotty accessibility. It is well known that new books in what the market very loosely calls SF come and go quickly, and are apt to be taken off the bookstore shelves in weeks...

(The entire section is 6769 words.)

Jeffrey Yule (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Yule, Jeffrey. “The Marginalised Short Stories of William Gibson: ‘Hinterlands’ and ‘The Winter Market.’” Foundation, no. 58 (summer 1993): 76–84.

[In the following essay, Yule addresses the critical reaction to Gibson's short fiction and emphasizes the maturity and originality of Gibson's stories, focusing on two representative tales, “Hinterlands” and “The Winter Market.”]

Critics discussing William Gibson's fiction generally focus on his novels—Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1987)—and devote only brief mentions or book reviews to the material in his 1986 collection Burning...

(The entire section is 4121 words.)

M. Keith Booker (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Booker, M. Keith. “Technology, History, and the Postmodern Imagination: The Cyberpunk Fiction of William Gibson.” Arizona Quarterly 50, no. 4 (winter 1994): 63–87.

[In the following essay, Booker outlines the defining characteristics of Gibson's fiction, emphasizing his attitude toward and treatment of technology.]

The disneyland theme park, as Jean Baudrillard has noted, is in many ways the ultimate postmodern phenomenon, the ultimate example of the kind of simulated environment with which we deal in less obvious ways every day. Its younger but bigger brother, Disneyworld, is even more perfectly postmodern, especially with addition of the technological...

(The entire section is 9414 words.)

Anthony P. Montesano (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Montesano, Anthony P. “Johnny Mnemonic: Keanu Reeves Goes Cyberpunk in William Gibson's Bleak Future.” Cinefantastique 26, no. 2 (February 1995): 14–15.

[In the following essay, Montesano traces the cinematic adaptation of Gibson's short story “Johnny Mnemonic.”]

In the future world of writer William Gibson, nuclear annihilation, alien invasion, and sword-and-sorcery space operas are not preoccupying factors.

Information and its dissemination are. Information is power and those who control it, he argues in his cyberpunk stories, control the world. Governments are rendered obsolete as multinational corporations, who trade on...

(The entire section is 1243 words.)

Thomas A. Bredehoft (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Bredehoft, Thomas A. “The Gibson Continuum: Cyberspace and Gibson's Mervyn Kihn Stories.” Science-Fiction Studies 22, no. 2 (July 1995): 252–63.

[In the following essay, Bredehoft explores Gibson's vision of cyberspace in the stories “The Gernsback Continuum” and “Hippie Hat Brain Parasite.”]

I was going to use a quote from an old Velvet Underground song—“Watch out for worlds behind you” (from “Sunday Morning”)—as an epigraph for Neuromancer.

(William Gibson, quoted in McCaffery 265)

In a 1986 interview with Larry McCaffery, William Gibson recalled the...

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Heather J. Hicks (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Hicks, Heather J. “‘Whatever It Is That She's Since Become’: Writing Bodies of Text and Bodies of Women in James Tiptree, Jr.'s ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’ and William Gibson's ‘The Winter Market.’” Contemporary Literature 37, no. 1 (spring 1996): 62–93.

[In the following essay, Hicks analyzes the role of women's bodies and disembodiment in Gibson's “The Winter Market” and James Tiptree, Jr.'s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.”]

Over the summer of my third year of graduate school, I entered that vast and growing inland sea of the American economy known as “the temp pool.” Abruptly dislodged from the hazy sphere of literature which I...

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Kathryne V. Lindberg (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Lindberg, Kathryne V. “Prosthetic Mnemonics and Prophylactic Politics: William Gibson Among the Subjectivity Mechanisms.” Boundary 2 23, no. 2 (summer 1996): 47–83.

[In the following essay, Lindberg discusses Gibson as a postmodern author and examines the roles of authority, time, and memory in his writing.]

According to Andrew Ross,

Cyberpunk's idea of a counterpolitics—youthful male heroes with working-class chips on their shoulders and postmodern biochips in their brains—seems to have little to do with the burgeoning power of the great social movements of our day: feminism, ecology, peace, sexual liberation, and...

(The entire section is 14629 words.)